With a coaching staff returning intact, led by manager Larry Parrish, the ‘Hens could be in line for one of their finest seasons in recent memory; even when compared to their International League championship teams of recent years.
While may Triple-A rosters are filled with minor league veterans and former big leaguers trying to get back to the show, the Toledo roster is filled with some of the Tigers top prospects, from top to bottom.
The outfield is quite possibly the most impressive, with sluggers Brennan Boesch, Casper Wells, and Ryan Strieby. All three of these players had big years with Double-A Erie in 2009, and all three spent extended time in Major League spring training this year as a result.
Strieby will reportedly be playing two-thirds of his time in left field, and one-third of his time at first base, as the Tigers continue their efforts to convert him to the outfield in order to find a way to get his potent bat to the big leagues.
Boesch provides some of the biggest power in the system, with numerous scouts giving him a strong 70 on the 20-70 scouting scale. The one knock on Boesch last year was his inability to command the strike zone, but early returns from spring training showed he may have made some improvements, which could help his offense take off even more.
After breaking out in 2008 and continuing that trend in 2009, Wells will get his first taste of the minor leagues highest level, as he continues his assault on opposing pitchers, and his march toward Detroit. Despite all his success the last two years, Wells wasn't resting on his laurels this off-season.
"I'm seeing some tremendous results from this off-season. I'm not just better prepared physically. Baseball is such a mental game, and they really helped me prepare for that piece. They did a great job of making me feel confident in my physical ability, and how to take care of myself."
Also in the outfield are minor league veteran Jeff Frazier and center fielder Clete Thomas. Frazier returns to Toledo for another season, as he continues to turn in solid performances and be a reliable Triple-A bat.
Thomas was squeezed out of the Detroit outfield picture with the acquisition of Johnny Damon and Austin Jackson. His stint in Toledo is not expected to last long, and he will likely rotate through center field with Wells.
Looking at the infield, the fun continues with potential big league contributors in Jeff Larish and Brent Dlugach. Despite being removed from the 40-man roster this spring, Larish still has a power bat from the left side, and he could fit the needs of the big club later this year. While in Toledo though, he will split his time between first and third base.
Dlugach got his first exposure to the big leagues last fall as a September call-up, and while he didn't see a lot of game action, the experience he gained was valuable. He spent the off-season adding muscle and trying to hit for more power, something he did successfully this spring.
If Detroit's incumbent shortstop, Adam Everett, fails to hit enough for the team's liking, or goes down with injury, then Dlugach could be the guy to get the call. In the meantime, Toledo fans will be treated to his slick fielding and power potential on a daily basis.
At second base, the Tigers will have both Will Rhymes and Max Leon looking for time, with Leon also spending some time at the hot corner when Larish is not there. Both players are looking to bounce back after tough 2009 seasons, and they could be solid sources of average and scrappy play.
The last member of the infield is former second round pick Danny Worth. With extensive experience at both shortstop and second base, and a strong enough arm to handle third base, Worth could see plenty of time on the field this year.
His offense has stagnated, and one scout suggested that "this is a make or break year for his career." Even without the offense, his defense will be an asset to the Toledo staff.
Rounding out the offense are the two backstops that Detroit signed in the off-season, both of whom have extensive big league experience.
Robinzon Diaz and Mike Rabelo are not stars or top prospects, but they are quality players that can fill a need in Triple-A, while also serving in a backup role in Detroit, should the Tigers opt to give Alex Availa some consistent at-bats in Toledo for a while.
Unlike the star-studded lineup, the starting rotation features a slew of veteran players that could prove very valuable in Triple-A. Every member of the rotation has big league experience, led by right-hander Armando Galarraga. After a banner season in 2008, Galarraga is trying to regain the form that suddenly had him considered a mid-rotation starter for the foreseeable future.
Alfredo Figaro is the youngest member of the rotation, and with a now healthy right wrist, he could be back on track and moving toward Detroit again. Figaro has showed flashes of brilliance in a starting role the last two years, and the Tigers are hoping he can do the same in Toledo this year. The remaining three members of the rotation are solid veterans that can be quality Triple-A arms, and they include right-handers Ruddy Lugo and Enrique Gonzalez, and left-hander Phil Dumatrait.
The prospect parade resumes when you begin looking at the Mud Hens' bullpen. Five members of the seven-man relief corps were members of the TigsTown Top 50 this off-season, led by left-hander Daniel Schlereth. Schlereth's big time arm strength and high ceiling make him a key cog in the bullpen. While he could close down the line, his role to start the year in Toledo is rigidly defined to continue his development.
"When I spoke with Mr. Knapp, Mr. Leyland, and Mr. Dombrowski, they had a plan all mapped out for me, and I know AJ is on that same page. I don't really have a role, but they are going to try and pitch me two or three innings at a time just to get my innings up, and then just go from there. I'm just going to compete and do my best to help this team win."
Robbie Weinhardt made a strong case for the big league roster during spring training, but the numbers game and the fact that he had options remaining, forced him to Toledo. With instructions in hand to improve his consistency and his breaking ball, Weinhardt is looking for a big season to position him for his big league debut.
"I feel pretty good. I didn't think I was going to get the innings that I did in [big league camp], but my arm feels good, and my body feels good. This spring was something to build on and a great learning experience for me. The success that I had and the confidence that I gained have really set me up to start the year. I really want to get started!."
Right-hander Jay Sborz was added to the 40-man roster during the off-season to keep him from becoming a minor league free agent, and the Tigers are hoping he rewards their confidence with a strong season, and possibly a trip to the Major Leagues.
Armed with a plus fastball and a dominating breaking ball, Sborz has the stuff and the mentality to work in the late innings for Toledo.
After a wild ride during spring training, one that included stops with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, Casey Fien is back in Detroit and in a position to work his way back into the big league picture. After a solid showing last year in Detroit, Fien appeared poised to help out there again this year. While the road back to Detroit may be a bit longer than originally thought, he will have time this year to help Toledo make a run at the league crown.
Josh Rainwater and Scot Drucker could both work in spot starter or swingman roles this year, as they both knock on the door to Detroit as well. Rainwater was another standout in big league camp, and the impressions he made with his strong showing could get him a big league debut this summer if the Tigers are in need of a reliever.
Drucker comes back in the same bit of uncertainty that he entered last season under, with his role not clearly defined.
"I'm going to be in the bullpen for right now, but I made the joke with AJ [Sager] that I will probably be the hybrid again. I'm all for it. Eddie Bonine did it, and you see where he is now. I'll do whatever they ask."
The last member of the bullpen is left-hander Jason Waddell who will likely be one of the key relief specialists for the Toledo coaching staff. Waddell uses some deception in his delivery to give lefties fits and he could be an important piece of the late innings in Toledo.
All of this added together should give the picture of a team poised to be among the top teams in the International League, and star outfielder Casper Wells seems to think that is just what they are capable of accomplishing.
"Offensively, I think we're going to put up a lot of runs this year. Our lineup could be great. When I was thinking about things the other day, I completely forgot about Dlugach and Larish, and that just makes us more potent. We can really do some damage. Unless we have a bad day, I don't know how many teams are going to be able to beat us. I don't know if I'm going out on a limb saying that, but that's how confident I feel right now."